Dennis Ignatius: Zahid Hamidi’s pyrrhic victory

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His reckless actions and his growing unpopularity are going to be a drag on Anwar’s government.


By recklessly and hastily purging the upper echelons of his party, Zahid has now driven the final nail in UMNO’s coffin. He may think he has won a great victory but all he has done is show himself a weak leader – afraid of facing his rivals in free and fair elections, resorting to chicanery to sideline his foes. It is a pyrrhic victory; he is now firmly in control but all he controls is a weaker, more divided, less credible party.

UMNO Supreme Council member Puad Zarkashi (a Zahid loyalist) rambunctiously declared that the party needed “a total clean-up”; but that is not what they got. What they got instead was a total whitewash of all the president’s mistakes and missteps, the mother of all cockups by a president who does not know the meaning of the word “clean-up”.

Having ensured he (and his deputy) will not be challenged, Zahid is now going ahead with party elections (scheduled for March 18th). It will be far from democratic; Zahid will make sure his yes-men sweep most of the positions. Remaining UMNO leaders who are less than committed to Zahid – Ismail Sabri for one – will be hard put to defend their positions in the party.

What will emerge after the 18th March elections is a party remade in Zahid’s image, a party whose top priority is to help Zahid stave off all the criminal charges he faces. That so many UMNO leaders would go along with Zahid is a measure of how low the party has fallen. The constant culling of dissenting leaders going back to Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s time as president of UMNO has left the party with few leaders of any calibre or intellectual prowess.

UMNO needed the one thing that Zahid could not provide – meaningful soul-searching, leadership renewal and internal reform. He could not provide it because he is a big part of the problem. Instead of stepping aside to deal with all the criminal charges he is facing, he has clung to power, forestalling reform, fighting off more credible leaders and turning a blind eye to the clamour for change rising from the ground. Zahid is UMNO’s biggest liability, the elephant in the room that was conveniently ignored.

There is little doubt that Zahid is once again misreading and miscalculating the political situation as he did when he pushed for early elections last year. His party may choose to ignore the elephant in the room, but voters will not. His harsh treatment of his rivals has disgusted and dismayed the very voters that his party needs if it is to recover lost ground. They see his behaviour as the desperate act of a man so engrossed with his own personal survival that he is willing to gamble the future of his party and the interest of the Malays just to save himself. I expect Malay voters will make known their displeasure soon enough.

UMNO will now have to depend more and more on non-Malay voters from Pakatan Harapan to cling to fewer and fewer seats in much the same way as MCA and MIC used to depend on Malay voters to scrape through in elections. This will only result in yet more Malay voters abandoning UMNO.

It is tragic that prime minister Anwar Ibrahim has been forced, by dint of circumstance, to hitch his political wagon to Zahid. His reckless actions and his growing unpopularity are going to be a drag on Anwar’s government.

Every time Zahid goes to court (replete with police outriders), he reminds Malaysians that something is rotten in Anwar’s government. Now Zahid has applied for the return of his passport so he can carry out official duties abroad. Is our nation going to be represented abroad in diplomatic forums and in bilateral visits by a man with dozens of outstanding criminal charges against him? Can it get more repugnant, bizarre and embarrassing for Anwar’s administration than this?

And beyond that, by denying UMNO the opportunity to reform and renew itself, Zahid has now left conservative Malay-Muslim voters with nowhere else to go but extreme right-wing parties like PAS and Bersatu. Unless Anwar can come up with a political agenda that appeals to Malay voters without alienating non-Malay voters, Malaysia will not escape the vortex of racism and religious extremism that is pulling us down. – Dennis Ignatius